Peterson , For the Deseret News, Published: Saturday, April 18 2015 12:16
the most famous first lines in world literature is the opening of Franz
Kafkafs 1915 novella gMetamorphosish: gWhen Gregor Samsa awakened one
morning from uneasy dreams, he found that hefd been transformed in his bed
into a monstrous bugh (my translation).
never explains the shocking transformation, and his story simply proceeds
from there, describing how Gregor and his family try to deal with whatfs
happened to him.
before Kafka, the great Islamic philosophical theologian al-Ghazali (d. A.D.
1111) had mused, in his gIncoherence of the Philosophers,h about the fact
that, when we put a book down on a table, we donft wonder, upon returning,
whether it might have turned into a horse during our absence.
shouldnft such things happen constantly?
This is a
much less frivolous and much more fundamental question than it might first
appear. Why is the universe lawful, predictable?
modern scientists agree that the universe began in an inconceivable
explosion of both space and time roughly 13.8 billion years ago — and that
all of the fundamental physical or natural laws were in place and operative
within an unimaginably small fraction of a second after that event. But why
is this so? Why, in other words, is the universe a cosmos (which originally,
in Greek, meant something orderly and organized) rather than a chaos?
Einstein remarked, gthe eternal mystery of the world is its
In a 1623
essay about gthat great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the
universe,h Galileo argued that gwe cannot understand it if we do not first
learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book
is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles,
circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible
to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through
a dark labyrinth.h
300 years after Galileo, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who
taught for many years at the California Institute of Technology (and often
played the bongo drums in a nightclub) not far from where I grew up, made a
similar point in his 1965 book gThe Character of Physical Lawh: gTo those
who do not know mathematics,h he wrote, git is difficult to get across a
real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. c If you want
to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand
the language that she speaks in.h
if Feynman and Galileo are correct, is the gbookh of the universe written in
mathematics? How did that happen, and what, if anything, does it mean? Who,
if anybody, wrote it? Why can mathematicians, thinking quietly in their
studies or standing before whiteboards, create (or discover?) forms of
mathematics that seem purely theoretical and lacking any practical value,
but that later turn out to apply very usefully to the real world?
(gImaginary numbers,h for example, despite their name and their long history
as an enjoyable puzzle for seemingly idle mathematicians, are now widely
employed in electrical engineering and quantum physics.)
three years before he would share the Nobel Prize for physics, the
Austro-Hungarian/American scientist Eugene Wigner (d. 1995) published a
now-classic paper titled gThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in
the Natural Sciences,h in which he argued that it was gunreasonableh to
assume that the excellent match between physics and mathematics was the
result of merely fortunate coincidence. It was, he said, deeply puzzling and
very difficult to explain.
was an atheist. Wigner, however, although he had been raised as a secular
Jew, eventually developed an interest in the Vedanta philosophical school of
Hinduism, and especially in its teaching that the universe is pervaded
throughout by mind. gIt was not possible,h he wrote, reflecting on his work
in quantum theory, gto formulate the laws in a fully consistent way without
reference to consciousness.h
Christian might think, in this light, of John 1:1. gIn the beginning was the
Word,h begins that famous verse. But the Greek term translated as gword,h
glogos,h also means glogic,h greason,h grationalityh — perhaps suggesting
that, in fact, the universe isnft merely brute, mindless matter, but is
suffused throughout with mind or consciousness.
course, as Feynman observed in his 1965 Nobel Prize lecture, gA very great
deal more truth can become known than can be proven.h